Portugal must take ‘responsibility’ for slavery, says president

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By Webdesk

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa is the first Portuguese leader to apologize for his country’s key role in the transatlantic slave trade.

Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said his country must take responsibility and apologize for its role in the transatlantic slave trade, the first time a Portuguese leader has proposed a national apology.

From the 15th to the 19th century, 6 million Africans were kidnapped and forcibly transported across the Atlantic Ocean by Portuguese ships and sold into slavery, mainly to work on plantations in Brazil.

Rebelo de Sousa said on Tuesday that the country should move beyond an apology, though he offered no details. The president was speaking at Portugal’s annual commemoration of the 1974 “Carnation” revolution, which overthrew the dictatorial Estado Novo system.

“Apologizing is sometimes the easiest thing to do: you apologize, turn your back and the job is done,” the president said, adding that Portugal “must take responsibility” for its past in order to have a better to build the future.

Rebelo de Sousa made his remarks after Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was in Portugal for his first visit to Europe since taking office, addressed the Portuguese Parliament. Brazil gained independence from Portugal in 1822.

He said that the colonization of Brazil also had positive factors, such as the spread of the Portuguese language and culture.

“(But) on the bad side, the exploitation of indigenous peoples… enslavement, the sacrifice of the interests of Brazil and Brazilians,” he said.

Brazil’s Human Rights Minister Silvio Almeida said Rebelo de Sousa had taken an “extremely important” step.

“We continue to suffer the effects of a legacy of slavery in Brazil,” Almeida said in a statement.

“Acknowledging the exploitation of millions of enslaved people for more than 300 years is a step towards a less unequal society.”

The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner told Portugal in 2021 that it should do more to confront its colonial past and its role in the transatlantic slave trade as a way to combat contemporary racism and discrimination in the country.

“It is important to shed light on the historically repressive structures of colonialism, its deep-rooted racist prejudices and their current ramifications,” Commissioner Dunja Mijatović said at the time, noting that it would be useful to include such history in school curricula.

Little is currently taught in Portuguese schools about the country’s central role in the slave trade.

From the 16th century, Portugal established sugar plantations – then the world’s most prized commodity – in Brazil, using slaves shipped across the Atlantic from the west coast of Africa.

The transatlantic slave trade became an extremely lucrative international venture involving the entire European colonizing power, with the British, Dutch, French and Spanish joining Portugal in the human trade.

Paula Cardoso, founder of the online platform Afrolink for black professionals in Portugal, said the president’s remarks were “symbolic” but important because they brought the issue to the table.

“(But) I would have liked to hear something more concrete from the president,” Cardoso told Reuters. “To have any impact, these reflections must be accompanied by actions and commitments.”

Reparations and public policies to combat inequalities caused by Portugal’s past are essential, Cardoso said.

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